Flourish with Feedback

How to understand and make the most of feedback you receive

By Liz Bentley

Hindsight is 20/20, or so the famous saying goes. But is it truly? Are we looking back at our past behaviors and decisions accurately or through a prism of our own design? I believe the answer hinges on whether we’re open to receiving feedback. If we rely mainly on our own analysis of the past, we may be missing some key information about how we come across to others, make decisions and take action. On the other hand, if we seek out and understand other people’s viewpoint of us, we may come closer to the 20/20 vision that is critical to our personal and professional growth.

A few months back, a friend called me up after her annual review. She was upset with some negative feedback she received from her boss and emphatically stated that it wasn’t true. I find this type of reaction to be common. While I am able (in my capacity as a coach) to work with a client over an extended period of time in order to build trust and encourage change, most managers and co-workers do not have this luxury and are seen as subjective critics.

Feedback, I firmly believe, is one of the most critical aspects to self-awareness and growth in the workplace and in life. But I have found it can sometimes be ineffective for the following reasons:

  1. Feedback is not delivered clearly. In general people are poor at giving feedback. They do not articulate it in a way that makes the person connect to what he/she is being told. If you interviewed most people after a feedback session, they will have only understood half of what was delivered to them. This is because examples are not given, the language is unclear and the feedback deliverer does not ask if the person understood it.
  2. People don’t want to give difficult feedback. I have spoken to many managers who hate giving negative feedback and think it is a waste of time. They feel that people will never improve or will shoot the messenger, and they’ll end up creating chaos from the experience. Instead of really helping people improve and seeing where they struggle, managers may opt to live with the dysfunction and work around it.
  3. People receiving the feedback don’t listen. There are three instinctive responses to receiving negative feedback. They are:
    Anger – “How dare you say that!”
    Denial – “This is not true, I do not do that.”
    Rationalization – “I have to be this way because….”
    How could anyone possibly listen to what they need to correct if they are preoccupied building their case on why the feedback is inaccurate?
  4. People discount their feedback. Often when people are receiving uncomfortable feedback, they will look at the person delivering it and think, “You are not so great either.” Instead of absorbing what is said, they will judge the deliverer. And because they have decided that person isn’t perfect either, they’ll invalidate the feedback. Stated another way, by looking at the other person’s weaknesses, they can avoid looking at their own.
  5. People have blind spots. A blind spot is a weakness that everyone knows about you but that you do not know about yourself. We all have blind spots that we cannot see. And the reason for this? We have developed a well documented storyline on why this weakness is not really a weakness. For example, the friend I mentioned who was upset by her annual review was told she talked too much and repeated herself, which was starting to grate on her co-workers. She said it wasn’t true and described all the times she had successfully closed deals because of her outgoing and talkative style. What she came to realize was this: while her gregarious nature may have worked for her in one realm, it wasn’t working in others and was becoming a detriment to her career. She needed to examine her storyline, which was preventing her from seeing her blind spot.
  6. We know it’s a weakness but don’t realize how big a weakness it is. Often people will admit, “yes, I tend to lose my temper.” They acknowledge this shortcoming but think it is part of who they are and they have forgiven themselves from this bad quality. While that is good for sleeping through the night with a healthy conscience, it’s not good for your co-workers who are afraid of you and frustrated with your impatience. Such a weakness is larger than you think and needs to be seriously addressed.

Feedback is critical to our self-growth. We don’t want to work in the dark, not knowing what we need to do to really move ourselves to the next level of our career and personal development.

Here is what you can do to receive feedback more effectively:

  1. Pay attention to informal feedback. Informal feedback comes to you all the time. It is the casual comments – sometimes direct, sometimes indirect (through sarcasm or passive aggressiveness). Don’t discount this feedback. This is how people feel about being with you and this is a great opportunity for you to grow.
  2. Listen up. When you do get feedback, formal or informal, listen to what the person is saying and ask them to repeat it so that you can really understand. Try not to fall into the anger, denial and rationalization mode. Do not create your defense in your head while the other person is speaking. Listen to everything that is being said and you will start to learn how you can improve.
  3. Don’t shoot the messenger. We’ve heard this a thousand times and yet we do it every day. Be grateful for the people who give you feedback even when they don’t do it the way you would have liked it delivered. Let’s be honest – negative feedback is hard to swallow in almost any delivery. Be grateful you are getting insight into where you need to work.
  4. Let go of your storyline. A characteristic that may have been working for you in certain areas may now be working against you as a negative trait. For example, you may pride yourself on being detail oriented. However, people may see you as a micro-manager, too controlling, not delegating enough, or spending too much time on projects.
  5. Get over it. We all have weaknesses and for the most part we all know each others’ weaknesses. You can’t hide them so don’t convince yourself into thinking you are. All you can do is work on them and be accountable to them. Forgive yourself and take responsibility.

When I give talks, I am constantly asked how people can grow their self-awareness and make improvements. While there are many great formalized feedback systems, you can also take matters into your own hand by paying attention to your environment. Do people like working with you, do they seek you out for the things you are good at and value what you do for your team? Pay attention to the informal feedback that comes to you weekly. Listen to it, ask questions and particularly pay attention to the feedback you don’t identify with because this will contain the key to what you need to work on for your growth.